Monday, March 24, 2014

Puzzles and the Dungeon

The Dungeon of Taenarum substitutes a "mad god" for the "mad wizard' who normally has created a sprawling, multi-level dungeon complex.  Because it's meant to embody the archetypal dungeoneering experience, it needs to have lots of puzzles.  I'd also like to work in some of the classic word puzzles, like the knights and knaves puzzle (the one with the two guys, one always tells the truth, the other always featured in the movie Labyrinth).  Since Taenarum will get explored by kids and family, this would be their first exposure to a lot of the classic puzzles.

Before I go on - please share any of your favorite puzzles or riddles in the comments!  Taenarum involves around 40 dungeon areas, so I'll have plenty of room to incorporate the classics.

Most of my puzzle-solving experience comes from the video gaming world and early computer games.  Let's take a look at how some of the common puzzle types carry over into RPGs.

For starters, puzzles tend to be either self-contained or not… single room or multi room.  You have the design space to make single room puzzles more arbitrary and difficult, because the players can just walk away.  Pro tip:  don’t build your dungeon so that the players can't bypass a difficult and illogical puzzle!  Riddles and Interaction puzzles are single room puzzles that are common in the dungeon.  Interaction puzzles are things like figuring out how to trigger a secret door, or disarming a trap.  I love putting in objects as resources that allow the players to interact with the environment... like using the wood to build a bridge and cross a chasm.  Video games also feature self-contained Mini-Games (ie, timewasters) but I don't see as many of those in dungeons.

Multi-room puzzles involve Information puzzles and Inventory items.  The most basic inventory puzzles is "the key" - finding the right key for an otherwise locked door.  Old time computer games frequently featured item puzzles that made the player find the right single use item for a circumstance… like giving the food from 3 to the hungry bear in room 7 in order to keep going; a more complicated model involved mixing items (like mixing the poison and the food to get rid of the bear completely).  Quests for magic items and artifacts are the meat and drink of fantasy adventure gaming, but otherwise we don't see a lot of Zork-style inventory use.

The other type of multi-room puzzle is informational - using a piece of information or pattern found elsewhere to solve a puzzle.  The classic examples is the combination to a safe - you can't open the lock until you find where the combination is hidden.

I'm sure most of this is old-hat to the readership, so at worst I've attached labels to things you already knew implicitly.  I'm mainly cataloging the puzzle types for self-reference and to remind myself of a few maxims:   If a puzzle is a blocker, make sure it's logical and fairly solvable; reserve the arbitrary puzzles for areas that can be bypassed.  Let the players learn about the problem before they encounter the possible solutions, so they're asking the right questions about the environment.  Finally, the table top medium allows a degree of lateral thinking and player creativity unsupported by computers, so don't design puzzles with only a single pre-formed solution in mind.

I've got the first 100+ rooms of Taenarum stocked and ready for adventurers.  In my zeal to learn how the Anti-Beedo would make a dungeon, I've heavily leveraged random tables.  "Special" rooms and puzzles are hard.   There's no short cut to creating them beyond perspiration and diligence.  Self-contained rooms and puzzles frequently come across as a bit arbitrary, whereas the multi-room style of puzzle requires more forethought - and works best if it enhances the overall theme of the dungeon.  I've found myself taking a step back a few times to lay the foundation for the multi-room puzzles.  The effort is worth it as I assume they'll become nice quests as players learn about them.

Puzzles are a big topic.  I'll circle back and look at some of my favorite puzzles from TSR and some OSR products as a follow up to this post and see what insights we can learn from those that have gone before.


  1. I prefer problems to puzzles - the difference being that problems are more tied to physical challenges and therefore admit of more than one solution.

  2. I'm considering them the same thing in the post above. "Crossing a chasm" would be an interaction puzzle. The players might build a bridge, or climb down one side and up the other, or figure out how to get access to the right magic and get across.

    Throwing open ended problems at the player is one of the biggest strengths of the table top.

  3. I think you can also add tactical puzzles to table top games. The simplest being an ambush (animate undead in a coffin ia classic) but also things like tough melee only monsters that can be lured into a chokepoibt or area where ranged attackers are protected by the environment.

  4. Another great thing to do with puzzles is turn them into mini-games, a la Telecanter. For example, maybe the PCs have to take part in a life-size chess match, and the chess-board comes out. Or they have to beat you at a game of Mastermind. Or they have to detect the 'trick' in a simple card trick, etc.

    Less doable with something you plan to publish.

  5. My players just had to work out the Monty Hall Problem. They got it right but it took a lot of arguing among them.